The Unbearable Lightness of Being
The Unbearable Lightness of Being was published in Paris in 1984 by Czech author Milan Kundera. The novel is a genre-defying mix of historical fiction, love stories, philosophy, and experimentation with narrative technique. Set mostly in Prague during the Russian invasion of Prague in the late 1960s, the novel focuses on the love lives of four Czech intellectuals as they struggle with relationships, sex, politics, and the military occupation of their country. The narrator frequently interrupts the story to analyze his own characters and discuss the fictional plotline in the context of the novel's central philosophy: the dichotomy between lightness and weight.
Let's get some background on the political history before diving into the novel. After World War II, Czechoslovakia started taking steps toward becoming a communist nation. Political activism was strong in favor of communism, particularly among young people. Czechoslovakia was largely under the control of Stalinist Russia, which began to use the smaller country largely for its own interests. Needless to say, this made the Czechs unhappy, and there began a period of attempted reform. This reform was spearheaded by Czech leader Alexander Dubcek, who came to power in January of 1968. Dubcek attempted to give back to the people rights that had been taken away by the Russian communist regime (like freedom of speech and press). The phrase "Prague Spring" refers to this period of attempted reform.
The Russians didn't take well to this, so in August of 1968 they invaded Czechoslovakia with military force. There was no military resistance on the part of Czechoslovakia, but during the occupation political tensions were high. The Russians were there to make sure that political reformists kept quiet, so the activists had to go underground or risk persecution by the Russians. As a result, many Czech intellectuals emigrated from the country in the 1970s.
Kundera was writing from personal experience by setting his novel in this specific time and place. He was born in Prague in 1929 and was a communist as a young man. He took part in Dubcek's Prague Spring in 1968 and, along with many other reformist intellectuals of the time, immigrated to France in 1975. The historical details included in Unbearable Lightness are rooted in Kundera's own experiences.
Why Should I Care?
An intimidating way of looking at The Unbearable Lightness of Being is as a heavyweight philosophical text chock full of funky narrative technique, complicated philosophy, and strange foreign phrases. Of course, this is neither helpful nor entirely accurate. A better way to approach this novel is as an exploration of interesting questions – questions that, if you haven't grappled with them yet, will crop up at some point during your life:
- If you only live your life once, and if life is transitory and passing, how do you give it meaning?
- What is it that makes you YOU? What is at the core of your identity?
- Do you have control over what makes you you, or are you compelled by innate elements that are beyond your control?
- What drives our lives: fate or chance?
- How do you assert your individuality in the face of totalitarian power?
- What is it that makes dogs (and other pets, no discrimination here) so lovable?